James Wan has done it again. The Conjuring 2 is a horror success and as far as I can tell the franchise is on an upward spiral. It’s got more or less the same formula with its episodic structure, the Warrens, the two intersecting cases and a family in peril. But this time, the plotting is tighter and the themes of family and familial love and support are more tightly woven into the plot structure with the conscientious use of doubling and parallels between the Warrens, the pre-credit case, the main case and even the ghosts.
I want to spend some time talking about how Wan plays with the tension between Seeing and Not Seeing through his use of jump cuts and long takes. While I’m sure he’s not the first horror director to do this, he does use these techniques very effectively.
The thing about jump cuts in horror where the camera doesn’t move and the frame remains completely still but the ghostly figures within it seem to cover incredible distances in the blink of an eye creates a sense where even if if you have your eye trained on something, there’s no way of seeing what is happening or piercing the veil into the other side, so to speak. It’s a helpless kind of fixed staring that you force yourself to do, thinking you can master the horror by seeing it but the camera work shows you unequivocally what an exercise in futility that is. So to me, these sort of jump cuts are set up with the intent of letting the viewer ‘see’ something only for them to realize that they still can’t, even if the camera work, the mise en scene/framing seems to be attempting to help the audience ‘see’ better.
On the other hand, the long-takes that do foreground the horror happening in real time whether the character and the audience is watching or not, ALSO hark back to how futile the use of sight in place of mastery is. I want to use two examples from The Conjuring 2, but I also don’t want to spoil it? So I’m gonna go with 2 clap-clap game sequences from The Conjuring (2013) instead.
In the sequence where the mother unintentionally plays hide-and-seek with the ghost, her vision is compromised but ours and the camera’s is not. We see her walk towards the cupboard that has opened on its own and through which two ghostly hands have reached out to draw her over to them with two resounding claps in the echoey, empty house. Trapped on the other side of the screen, all you can do as the audience is sort of curl up in your seat and hope nothing happens to her.
In the other sequence, where the camera pushes in on the mother’s terrified face as she’s trapped in the basement, back against the door, illuminated solely by the flickering match in her hand, the long take ends with two hands reaching out from the shadows behind her to clap twice right beside her face before the candle gets snuffed out. As a member of the audience, you know it’s going to happen, the music and the tension the director has ratcheted up in the scene all tell you it’s going to happen and you see it happening but you still can’t stop yourself from screaming.
(ok. I know. It’s a jump-scare but omg it was the best moment in the film I can’t not talk about it even if it’s a little out of point… I’m sorry)
So these long-takes seem to indicate how even if you could see the horror unfolding (which the jump cuts deny you), it’s completely, utterly and absolutely useless anyway. So both positions, Seeing and Not Seeing become equally terrifying to the point where you don’t know what to do with yourself. Now, that’s a good horror film.
The Conjuring 2 does something more with who gets to see that makes the film even more interesting and called to mind one of the elements that Ju-on (2002) did really well and got credited for when that film came out.
So this brings me to my last point about Seeing Too Much because both Conjuring films seem to break down at the climactic moment because the power of suggestion is set aside in order to show you the horror, to give it an actual visual representation. And this externalizing of the demon and giving it physical/visual form turns the the possession narrative suddenly into a monster narrative. I don’t understand why he does this but assuming there’s a reason, why doesn’t it work?
When horror is in the mind of the viewers it’s much more frightening than when it is given physical/visual form because what’s scary to one person may not be scary to another. Especially, when you have horrible, uncooperative, desensitized horror film fans like myself (I’m sorry! C’mon! My earliest film memory was watching Poltergeist (1982) on TV when I was three!).
As an example, the demon in Insidious (2010) looked like Darth Maul; and the Crooked Man in this film just looks like Jack Skellington dressed as the Pumpkin King from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) to me. And the effect it produces is not so much horror but more, “Oh wow! That’s a cool monster design!” And an accompanying desire to see more of the monster. Not quite the right effect for a horror film I think.
Anyway, the way these films that Wan puts out with their fantastic build up that keep collapsing at the climactic moments got me thinking about how past monster movie directors got it right. And I came to the conclusion that this is why Body Horror as a genre is something that’s always fascinated me.
One of the major struggles early horror filmmakers struggled greatly with (before the boons of CGI came along), was the creation of a monster that did not look like a man in a suit. But with Body Horror, you completely sidestep this problem because the horror is the human body, in particular the defamiliarisation of the human body, the making strange of it.
That’s why movie monsters like H.R. Giger’s designs for the aliens in the Alien franchise (1979 – 1997) have infected the dreams of so many. The recognizable bone structures like the ribcage and vertebrae found on the outside of an alien species, human fingers used as legs for the facehugger, not to mention the phantasmagorical glimpses of human genitalia infused into the design of these creatures.
Or what about John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) where every part of the human body from blood to skin to organs can be made monstrous with gaping mouths finding a home in a person’s thoracic cavity while a decapitated head sprouts spider legs to scurry away on?
Or why is it that even with it’s much weaker storylines the cenobites of from Clive Baker’s Hellraiser franchise (1987 – 2011) continue to fascinate and horrify us?
And what about The Exorcist (1973), greatest possession film of all time? No visual/physical representation of the demon at all other than what we’re offered through the tortured body of poor unfortunate Regan.
I think the simple explanation for why these monsters are effective horrific-inducing monster designs is because they point out that the horror is not out there but it’s in here, inside us and with us all the time. And while our eyes are looking outward trying to guard against an external, encroaching, invading horror, we’ve left ourselves blind to the horrors residing within us, that potential for monstrosity that we all carry within us.
So here’s to hoping that James Wan might consider some body horror for a more successful monster design for his next horror film.
Ps. I recognize that a lot of this is wishful thinking because possession narratives are about invasive, encroaching, intruding horror that tries to defile the human vessel but hey! if The Exorcist could do it… maybe Wan will find a way too?